Is it possible to be a born performer but take 71 years to figure it out? That’s the puzzle presented by the remarkable career of Lynn Ruth Miller, the Ohio-born Fringe fixture who waited until her eighth decade to take to the stage but now, at 82, seems like an absolute natural. Part of this is to do with her facility across multiple forms – this year you can see her in three shows, spanning stand-up, singing, storytelling and acting – but mostly it’s a matter of Miller’s relaxed confidence, her distinctive mix of naivete and bawdiness, and her palpable authenticity. She’s a natural on stage because what you see is what you get – but, as these shows demonstrate, that self-knowledge and self-assurance is the work of a lifetime.
Miller’s performing life started with stand-up and that’s the form showcased in This Is Your Future. She sits on stage chatting to the audience (“Are you here because you’ve heard of me or because you have nothing better to do?”) before easing organically into a set that makes a benefit of her advanced age and experience without stooping to sentimentality or stereotype (well, maybe a little stereotype here, and some unabashed bad taste there). Not many comics can deliver observational gags about underwear shopping before the invention of nylon but Miller can, as well as material ranging from postwar social expectations to eating disorders, and experiences of medical procedures and sex over 70. “You know he loves you if he takes out the false teeth…”
Miller is also adept at autobiographic storytelling and songs, which form the basis of her cabaret work. In I Love Men, she movingly traces a lifetime of misadventures with males, from the father with whom she was besotted to a recent attachment that didn’t pan out. Along the way are teenage fumblings, failed marriages and, very affectingly, some devoted pets. One of Miller’s most endearing assets is her awareness of her own imperfections: from disproportionately idolising her daddy to singing too fast for her backing tracks, she knows her foibles but doesn’t let it stop her. It makes her honest expressions of hard-earned self-knowledge and self-acceptance all the more powerful. When she sings ‘My Mind is My Erogenous Zone’ we believe her and love her for it.
The potential for idolisation gets a novel spin in Gran Slam, a short tongue-in-cheek play starring Miller as a fictionalised version of herself. Written by Keir McAllister and directed by Shauna Macdonald, it’s a zingy, zig-zagging farce featuring Larah Bross as Miller’s granddaughter. Larah (very funny) wants to collaborate with her gran on a saccharine two-person Fringe show about Miller’s very special life – she’s even composed a poem in her honour that manages to rhyme ‘tireless’ with ‘psoriasis’. But she’s in for a shock. The character of Lynn Ruth Miller is spikier and saucier than Bross’s fond imaginings – and indeed than the real-life Miller – but the core of her persona remains surprisingly consistent. She’s all about rejecting normative expectations around age and gender, following her own ideas of happiness and fulfilment, and encouraging others to do the same. And however old you happen to be when you put such beliefs into action, it makes for a life well lived.
This Is Your Future runs at Just the Tonic at The Community Project until Sunday August 28. I Love Men runs at C nova until Monday August 29. Gran Slam ran at the Stand Comedy Club. Details at edfringe.com This article was first written for the Scotsman.